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Fix The NCAA? There Are No Simple Answers (But We Do Have A Suggestion)

Yesterday the NCAA admitted that some overzealous sleuths withing its ranks overstepped their bounds while investigating the University of Miami’s athletic department.  That admission has predictably led to a wave of new “Fix the NCAA!” stories from one coast to the other.

One problem: There is no simple cure-all for what ails college athletics.

There’s no bottle of Witch Hazel to drink.  Or to pour on stains.  Or to wash one’s hair with.

There’s no magic elixir.  Not even the paying of players would act as a silver bullet, yet that was the first solution kicked around firstest by the mostest.

The problem with schools paying players is that not all schools can actually afford to pay players.  And which athletes would they pay if they could?  Just the kids from revenue sports?  Get ready for lawsuits if that’s the plan.  Just men?  Get ready for even more lawsuits.

Also, if all schools were allowed to pay players X amount, there would still need to be some type of policing agency to make sure one school wasn’t paying X + Y.  If it’s legal to provide cake, someone’s gonna try to provide icing.  On that you can bank.

Another possible plan involves instituting an Olympic style system to college sports.  Andy Staples of and Jay Bilas of ESPN are proponents of that design.  As sharp as those two men are, the Olympic model would only create new problems as it solved old ones.  If boosters and businessmen were allowed to pay to players — so long as their favorite schools did not — you’d wind up with bidding wars for athletes.  And even if you hold your nose and pretend that the idea of full-scale, above-ground bidding wars doesn’t stink, you would still have to deal with problems that would be imported from the ranks of professional sports.

What happens the first time a lowly-paid athlete surprises everyone with a thousand rushing yards in a season?  Here’s guessing he’d ask for more money.  If he didn’t get that money, might he hold out just like his heroes in the pros do?  Someone eventually would.

And if you’re A-OK with hold-outs as part of the college game, what about transfers?  Let’s say it’s up to the boosters and business-owners backing a school to decide whether or not to give the hotshot tailback a raise.  And let’s say they decide not to pony up the cash he desires.  Can the player simply leave to play elsewhere?  Is there a contract between the player, the booster, and the school preventing the player from cutting a better deal with another program?  Would there be a governing body to prevent such free agency?  Or are the NCAA’s transfer rules just as outdated as its views on amateurism are said to be?

Now let’s take all this a step further.  Suppose a player signs with a booster/business-owner/school, plays well and is happy with his pay.  All’s good.  But now let’s suppose that player sprains a knee before the BCS Championship Game.  He feels well enough to play in the game and the team’s doctors clear him, but what if his agent — and you know you’d have agents involved in any pay-for-play model — decides it would be too risky for the star tailback to risk further injury just four months prior to the NFL draft?  Hey, an agent works on commission and he would be looking out for his player and his bank account, not the school (or the persons paying players on behalf of those schools).  So even if the star tailback is cleared and is in no risk of further damaging his knee, his agent might convince him to bypass the big game.

Here’s another potential landmine for you.  If boosters, business-owers, and other big money men are allowed to buy athletes with cash, cars, sex, beads, pelts or anything else of their choosing, might this not attract an even greater number of shady characters into the world of college athletics?  When Luther Campbell of Two Live Crew was handing out cash on behalf of the University of Miami, at least he had the decency to do so under the table.  Would a university president or its board of trustees want a guy like Campbell — or someone much, much worse — associating himself with their school?

In 1991, Richard “Richie the Fixer” Perry was photographed in a hot tub with three UNLV basketball players.  Eyebrows were raised.  But without rules and regulations preventing gamblers from buying players for schools, what’s to prevent players from making some extra cash by tanking games?  And please don’t throw out the threat of legal issues.  We’re talking about teenagers who would be plied with cash by smooth-talking, big-spending adults.  “It’s OK.  No one will find out, kid.”

Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports is another intelligent media member who’s in favor of the Olympic model.  He wrote yesterday that it’s time for college athletes to start signing endorsement deals.  The final portion of his well-written piece is as follows:


“The NCAA should just drop the Miami case.  After all these months and all these millions spent, in the end, nothing bad ever really happened there.  Unless the NCAA has hoodwinked you into believing a rich guy giving money directly to the players, rather than exclusively to wealthy administrators, is somehow a terrible sin.”


We at don’t believe it’s a sin for a booster to pay a kid who’s risking his body for everyone else’s entertainment (and for a school’s bank account).  It’s against the current rules, but we don’t believe it’s a sin.  Therefore, the problems we have with a pay-the-players plan can’t be pooh-poohed away as the pollyannaish ideals of a few schnooks longing for a simpler age.

Would it be great if college athletes could be paid?  Sure, in a perfect world.  But turning college sports into a modern version of the wild, lawless West isn’t what we consider to be a perfect world.  And before you say it, no, college sports is not already as bad as the Wild West.  It’s bad.  And there are rules being broken at every major school out there today, but it’s nowhere near as bad as it would be if the NCAA rule book suddenly vanished and cash started flowing with no attention paid to who turned on the spigot.

The “just pay ‘em” solution only opens the door for more troubles.  Deregulate too much and in 20 years everyone will be asking how things could go so wrong and why there were no regulations in place to prevent such a mess.  (Seems like we recently live through something like that on Wall Street.)

So what can be done?  Well, if you really want to fix the issue, you kill off college sports altogether.

At least as we know “college sports” today.

Universities would need to simply use athletics for money-making and advertising purposes.  Period.  Athletic departments would be businesses owned by the schools but run totally by outsiders.   The connection between a schools and its athletic teams would be akin to the tie between Lowe’s and NASCAR driver Jimmy Johnson.  You associate the two, sure, but Johnson isn’t working at Lowe’s and Lowe’s doesn’t build or drive the car.

More to the point, the athletes would not be students.  They wouldn’t go to class.  They wouldn’t have to take exams.  They would simply be employees of a school’s outside athletic department.  They would be minor leaguers and nothing more.

You can’t get half-pregnant.  Paying players as some sort of halfway fix would only create more headaches.  Schools need to go the distance and simply own and run semi-pro teams as outside businesses for profit and for advertising.  (And even under that scenario they’d still need an NCAA — or something of its ilk — to act as the governing body and rulemaker.)

Now, do fans have the stomach for such a total paradigm shift?  Do college administrators?

If not, then there will continue to be major flaws in our system of college athletics.  Even if players are paid or given endorsement deals.


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scottlester 9 pts

Every time I read about paying a college athlete,  I think "Give me break."  While I will admit the life of a college athlete can be hard, I can't imagine that it is any harder than the kid working two or three jobs to pay for classes or the student who works crap jobs for a school as part of a work study program.  The fact is that a scholarship athlete gets room, board and tuition paid for, that is payment.  Once the athlete graduates (if they choose to take advantage of the opportunity given them through the scholarship they recieved) they can many times utilize the recognition and connections that comes from playing for a university sports program into non-sports opportunities after school.  That seems like fair payment to me.  The problem is not payment, it is that more attention is given to the athletes that fail to take advantage of the opportunity given them than the ones who take full advantage of the fantastic opportunity college sports afford them.

DanHogan 13 pts

 scottlester What do you think about players being paid stipends that are based on the stipends that are typically paid to academic scholarship holders?  Those stipends are intended to cover the misc costs that students tend to take on as being a student but aren't covered by typical room/board/books.  I think the number thrown around last summer was 2K per year.

torris187 7 pts

Here is a great link where a sports economist talks about competive balance in college sports.  The basic jist of the paper is that even with limiting player compensation, the NCAA has miserably failed at keepign a competitive balance in college athletics.

bbstirrd 5 pts

I agree there are inherent problems with allowing college players to get paid by outside entities.  But no system is perfect.  In my opinion, the problems you listed are no worse than the current problems plaguing college athletics.  Consider the current exponential growth in player transfers from school to school.  The biggest news in college athletics over the last few years hasn't been national championships, it has been scandal after scandal at top tier athletic departments.  Pete Carroll at USC, Jim Tressell at OSU, Bruce Pearl at UT, the Miami U football program, and on and on... In the big picture, those "scandals" don't amount to a hill of beans (not counting the PSU scandal, which was legit).  Who is next?  It could be anyone, because let's not pretend it's only "those other" schools bending the rules.  I think the solution you offer, about college athletics detaching from the university structure, may be the best one out there.  But I'm afraid we may be several steps away from that ever happening.

AllTideUp 72 pts

I agree with all the points about the problems that will occur from paying players.  I'm surprised more people don't think about the inherent troubles in doing so.  I'll even throw in another one that I think is possible.  What happens when certain players want to be paid more than others?  The starting QB plays more, puts more on the line, and accomplishes more than a 3rd string Center so who's to say the QB or others shouldn't put up a fuss if all players are getting the same amount in a true pay-for-play type system?  How do you handle that?  The financial aspect as well as the morale issue it might create in the locker room?  How about the legal ramifications of denying fair compensation to employees which is what college athletes will essentially become?  How soon before the entire recruiting process is scrapped and replaced with some sort of prospect draft that makes everything more equal between schools? 


There is a huge difference between amateur athletics and a professional system.  I don't think most people consider that before making up their mind on this issue.

torris187 7 pts

 AllTideUp Right now colleges DO play players, however it is just that thier compensation sucks and isn't in the form of money.  A player's maximum compesnation right now is a 1 year contract to a university, with full room and board, tution, tutoring fees and a monthly stipend.  All that adds up to about 25k per player, which is right around the poverty line. 


Also, note that players don't even get a 4 year contract to a university, but a 1 year contract with an OPTION to renew by the school, also the contract prohibits the player from seeking other alternatives once the contract is accepted in year 1 (players can't just transfer willy nilly). 


That sounds like a horrible business model to me. 

AllTideUp 72 pts


That's just it.  It's not a business.  People complain about the millions being made at the expense of college athletes yet these schools don't really rake in millions in profits.  Most of the money is spent in-house on non-revenue sports, reinvested into the revenue generating programs in the long run, or contributed to the school itself for academic purposes.  No one's pocketing any money outside of a few coaches and administrators that may have large salaries.  And If that is something worth being upset over then that is really a very different issue.


Beyond that, it must not be a raw deal as college-aged players continue to volunteer to participate in the system.  There are plenty of programs that don't rake in millions every year though at the FCS and Division II levels.  Despite that, college athletes continue to choose the highest profile programs they can get into...often these programs are the best academically as well.  Most students have to pay tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket in order to attend these schools and get an education.  The issue over whether or not that is a fair price is separate, but the point remains that these college athletes have the opportunity to acquire a quality education if they wish and apply themselves.  The opportunity to prepare yourself at a big stage and maybe make millions in the NFL is another plus.  You don't see college athletes complaining about that opportunity and don't colleges exist to prepare people for a professional career in some field?  If you want to be prepared for pro-football then training at the college level only makes sense.

BonzaiB 24 pts

 AllTideUp Very good points. I have read this three times, trying to figure out how to make a paid system in college work, and it just is much more complicated than I thought before I read this the first time.....

AllTideUp 72 pts


The current system isn't perfect and could probably be improved, but I think it's more right than wrong.

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